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Bangladesh ‘at crossroads,’ USCIRF told

WASHINGTON (BP)–The American ambassador to Bangladesh told a bipartisan panel on religious freedom Dec. 4 he is confident the Asian country will have a bright future but acknowledged it is “at a crossroads” in determining whether it will become a moderate Islamic democracy or a “breeding ground for terrorists.”

On Dec. 29, Bangladesh will hold its first national elections since 2001 after nearly two years under a military-supported caretaker government. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which placed the country on its “watch list” in 2005, convened a Capitol Hill hearing to address Bangladesh’s election effort amid danger signs of an increasing militancy by some in the majority Muslim population.

James Moriarty, U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, told the commission “the stakes for the United States are enormous.”

“The country could achieve a peaceful transition and become a model of a relatively prosperous Muslim majority democracy,” Moriarty said. “Or it could return to the winner-take-all, obstructionist politics of previous years. The latter could lead [the country] down a dark road towards chaos and widespread poverty. If Bangladesh stumbles within the coming months, it could become a breeding ground for terrorists and support for groups wishing to operate in South and Southeast Asia, and perhaps beyond.”

Moriarty is optimistic, he told the panel, because Bangladeshis are “deeply committed to democracy,” are “among the most talented, hard-working people I have met” and “have a tradition of tolerance, with Muslims, Hindus and Christians all helping their neighbors celebrate each religion’s holidays.”

USCIRF members, who have held three hearings on Bangladesh since 2004, made it clear they consider the country of vital significance.

It’s important the United States “do everything that we can to promote democracy and human rights in Bangladesh,” commissioner Richard Land told Baptist Press after the hearing..

“It is one of the great hopes for a democracy in Asia where people of differing religious affiliations live together amicably and under the rule of law,” said Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “And it would be a tremendous help for the growth of human rights and freedom in the world if democracy and the rule of law can flourish in Bangladesh, and it will be similarly a terrible, terrible setback if it slides into dictatorship and abandonment of the rule of law.”

Bangladesh had free elections and a representative form of government between 1991 and 2007, although there were still problems with corruption, according to USCIRF. Islamic militancy and violence have been problems, especially after the 2001 elections, the commission said in its annual report earlier this year. The intolerance by militant Muslims has included murders, sexual assaults and other violence against minority religious group members, especially Hindus; the confiscation of property from adherents of minority religions, and discrimination against religious minorities in government hiring and services, USCIRF reported.

The United States and other countries have pressed Bangladesh to improve its human rights record, Moriarty told the commission. “Extrajudicial killings have reportedly declined significantly over the past year,” and the treatment of minorities has shown some indications of improving, he said. Moriarty acknowledged, however, local officials continue to refuse to investigate reports of human rights violations. He also said, “There are warning signs that extremism could take root in Bangladesh.”

The United States is seeking to address the threat of Bangladesh becoming a haven for terrorists, Moriarty said. America is supporting the country’s attempts to thwart terrorism, aiding Bangladesh in the control of its border and, through the Leaders of Influence program, working with Muslim imams and other religious leaders to acquaint them with and gain their support for U.S. development efforts, he said.

Two witnesses from election-monitoring organizations gave largely positive assessments of the preparations for the Dec. 29 elections. Polling consistently has shown more than 90 percent of the population is expected to vote, said Kimber Shearer of the International Republican Institute. Peter Manikas of the National Democratic Institute said the election “will be a well-observed” one, with 100 short-term and 45 long-term observers.

Specialists on religious and other human rights in Bangladesh expressed concerns, however, about conditions in the country and about security for some minority communities desiring to participate in the elections. Militant Muslims should be held accountable for their crimes, and discriminatory policies against religious minorities should be ended, witnesses testified.

The caretaker government has undermined its own reforms, said Asif Saleh, executive director of Drishtipat, a human rights organization. The new government should quickly implement new reforms that will support human rights in the long term in Bangladesh, he told the commission.

The “watch list” on which USCIRF placed Bangladesh is for those governments the commission believes require close monitoring regarding their policies on religious freedom. The panel chose not to recommend Bangladesh to the State Department as a “country of particular concern,” a designation reserved for governments that have “engaged in or tolerated systemic and egregious violations of religious freedom.”

USCIRF is a nine-member panel that advises the White House and Congress on religious persecution and related issues globally. The president selects three members of the panel, while congressional leaders name the other six. The State Department’s ambassador at large for international religious freedom serves as a non-voting member of the panel.